Emotion vs. Intellect
We’ve had a running conversation in the comments about whether nonfiction books appeal more to our emotions or our intellect. We’ve discussed four titles in some depth, and if I had to place them on a spectrum from most emotional appeal to most intellectual appeal, then I would rank them thus: WE’VE GOT A JOB, TEMPLE GRANDIN, MOONBIRD, and A BLACK HOLE IS *NOT* A HOLE. Those books in the middle–TEMPLE GRANDIN and MOONBIRD–both have some technical information, but they also tell involving stories about living things: people, birds, and cows. Of course, successful books often reach out to all kinds of readers, so this is not to say that each of these books does not appeal to both the emotional and intellectual reader, but rather that this is how I see their primary appeal.
Now if I take the fiction that we’ve discussed so far and place it on the same spectrum from most emotional appeal to most intellectual appeal, then I would rank them thus (excluding STARRY RIVER and WILL SPARROW which I haven’t read yet): WONDER, THE LIONS OF LITTLE ROCK, THE MIGHTY MISS MALONE, CROW, SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS, THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, and NO CRYSTAL STAIR. But as I do this, I notice that neither THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN and NO CRYSTAL STAIR have the same cerebral level of involvement as A BLACK HOLE IS *NOT* A HOLE. In fact, I would correlate them to TEMPLE GRANDIN and MOONBIRD because they play to both the emotion and the intellect. I realize that many of you may quibble with my rankings here, you may be thinking that some of the books that I have ranked on the emotional end of the spectrum caused you to think quite a bit, perhaps even more than the ones I have placed on the intellectual end of the spectrum, but when I talk about intellectual appeal, I mean more than just thinking.
I’ve been reading THE READER’S ADVISORY GUIDE TO GENRE FICTION by Joyce Saricks (a professional reference book for librarians) which lists emotion and intellect as significant appeal factors for many readers. Saricks has divided her genres into four groups: adrenaline genres (adventure, romantic suspense, suspense, and thrillers); emotions genres (gentle reads, horror, romance, and women’s lives and relationships); intellect genres (literary fiction, mysteries, pyschological suspense, and science fiction); and landscape genres (fantasy, historical fiction, and Westerns). Intellect is the most important appeal factor for me followed by adrenaline, so it’s not surprising that when I see a book that plays to emotions and landscape (SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS or THE LIONS OF LITTLE ROCK, for example) I have to fight off a tepid response.
But back to our emotional/intellctual spectrum which currently lacks anything that I would place solidly to the right of NO CRYSTAL STAIR. I think there are some books that could be there, but we just haven’t discussed them yet. LIAR & SPY and THE FALSE PRINCE come to mind rather quickly, but I think we may also have some mysteries that end up there, too. Still there is nothing on our fiction spectrum that approaches the cerebral level of A BLACK HOLE IS *NOT* A HOLE so I am going to reach up to that 12-14 age range for a couple of unlikely Newbery candidates: RUINS by Orson Scott Card and ALL THE RIGHT STUFF by Walter Dean Myers.
RUINS is science fiction–the big fat middle volume of a big fat trilogy. This book will be challenging for readers drawn to the emotions genres, but the landscape, adrenaline, and intellectual appeal is off the charts. Booklist describes it thus: “At the end of Pathfinder (2010), Card left readers’ minds sugar rushing from some of the tastiest brain candy in recent memory . . . This is philosophically challenging, mind-pretzeling stuff about time travel, engineered evolution, gene splicing, artificial intelligence, xenocide, and the very nature of what it means to be human and have a soul.”
ALL THE RIGHT STUFF is . . . well, another novel of ideas. It’s kind of literary fiction, but the prose isn’t pretentious enough to be literary fiction. Publishers Weekly describes it thus: “Myers expertly turns a series of Socratic dialogues on the nature of the social contract into an engrossing and fast-paced novel that never feels preachy . . . Myers fits a large cast and many motivations into a relatively small work, and they in turn transform this extended examination of political philosophy into a must-read novel.” Once again the primary appeal here is intellectual. The other factors are present: the Harlem setting is distinct, the novel is brief and the pacing fast, and the characters are well drawn. But this book is anathema to the emotions reader who will feel like the characters are merely puppets for Myers’s dialogues rather than fully realized characters with their own thoughts, feelings, and actions.
So when you tell me that WONDER and THE LIONS OF LITTLE ROCK and THE MIGHTY MISS MALONE make you think about lots of issues. Well, yes, they do, but it’s not the intellectual workout that you get when you read RUINS or ALL THE RIGHT STUFF. I have not made a value judgment on any of these appeal factors nor have I made any attempt to relate them back to the Newbery criteria, but they do explain how we can read the same book and with the same criteria come to different conclusions.
It is important that we turn our critical eye inward from time to time and examine how we ourselves are flawed and how those flaws, in turn, impact our ability to apply the criteria fairly and impartially. Knowing what you know about me as a reader you can probably assume that when it comes to, say, development of a plot, that I am going to evaluate a book very differently than a reader who is drawn primarily to emotions and landscape rather than adrenaline and intellect. Fortunately, the committee process affords two important tools–rereading and discussion–that can help me see things from different perspectives.
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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